I am, as you might say, an “out” dyslexic… so are a few of my colleagues… but quite a lot are still, “in the closet”.  Disclosure of dyslexia is a very personal decision…

If you talk to HR in many large professional firms such as lawyers, accountants or management consultants you find that, statistically, the number of dyslexics and others with cognitive “complications” is usually small, and not reflective of society at large.

So why is that? Are the numbers of dyslexics entering the professions actually quite low, or is it just that in a “professional” environment people are, for some reason, unwilling to disclose?

Dyslexics can’t get in to professional firms, right?

My understanding is that dyslexia occurs across the spectrum of IQ… so the problem shouldn’t be a lack of capability. Equally, there are plenty of studies and anecdote linking dyslexia with creativity, tenacity and with success. So I’d like to think that dyslexia is not in itself a barrier to following a professional career. It hasn’t stopped me after all and many of the people I referred to above have been more successful than I.

What about qualifications?

Conventional academic achievement is a big feature of all professions and a prerequisite to their entry. I know, from personal experience, that exam based qualifications don’t come easily for all of us – so that must reduce the numbers of dyslexics who can get through the door, regardless of whether they have any other exceptional capability. But it’s important that people don’t view this as a barrier – plenty of dyslexics gain excellent academics, particularly with appropriate time adjustments or assistive technology many dyslexics gain excellent academics. My diagnosis came some years after exams… so the road was a little more bumpy!

What about the recruitment cycle?

Is it possible that the recruitment cycle disadvantages dyslexics? This one could go either way I think. In practical terms, there are lots of different hurdles. One that comes to mind is the case study interview – a short time to read a reasonably long document full of names and facts in order to form a view or prepare an on the spot presentation. That could prove a challenge but of course you could always disclose your dyslexia, ask for more time, come prepared with your own laptop etc. However, not everyone would be comfortable doing that and it is hard to gauge the likely reaction of a prospective employer.

Dyslexics don’t want Professional careers do they?

The early years of many professional jobs enforce a structure and rigour along with not a little tedium that, whilst perfectly possible for dyslexics to cope with, doesn’t play to their strengths. It is only when they rise to more senior roles that most have the opportunity to routinely exercise the insight and perspective that dyslexia can bring or to demonstrate the value of their ability to empathise with and understand the way others “tick”.

What about large organisations?

A great many professionals are of course employed in very large organisations. This is in itself a challenge but I doubt that this is in itself a reason for low numbers of dyslexics joining. Whilst large organisations frequently come with enlightened HR policies and much good intent, they also tend to have more rigid processes, try to fit everyone into a standard performance measurement framework and generally find it difficult to fully exploit the potential of exceptional but “differently shaped” people.

Of course, this stereotype is not always the case – many organisations both aspire to better and go some way to achieving it, Equally, the employee is in no way powerless – we can can and must influence the outcomes that we get. This is where I believe good coaching comes in.

So I think the conclusion I am forming is that the low numbers of dyslexics within the professions is a myth… It is more likely to be a disclosure issue. So why would this be?

Ah… so they are here but are hiding!

So of dyslexics are present within the professions, in reasonably high numbers, why do so few disclose their issue/gift? I can only speak from my own experience but I think there are a few factors:

People don’t know what dyslexia is

Labels like “dyslexic” are so readily associated with stereotypes and these are often unhelpful or simply wrong in the case of any given individual. In my experience the practical implications of dyslexia are much more diverse than most people think and can be very different for different people. Disclosure therefore requires explanation and this level of openness with colleagues may not be something that dyslexics welcome.

Ignorance of the positives.

Dyslexia is often accompanied by strengths talents and capability that does not occur readily within more “conventional” thinkers. However, many people are not aware of this so disclosure is often viewed simply as a negative.

Why tell someone you have a weakness?

Professional firms usually measure people against competency frameworks – standard sets of “measures” or “attributes” that describe what everyone should be like. A reasonable concern would be that disclosure is simply pointing out weaknesses.

Bad past experiences.

All of the above can work out just fine for the right person in the right role in the right organisation. Education and the media are gradually improving public perception and awareness but, I have met plenty of dyslexics who carry with then the scars of less informed times and are unwilling to disclose for fear of getting a bad reaction again.

Don’t see the need.

If you are joining a business that sells brain power and largely recruits those with the best academic qualifications from the best universities then there is a disincentive to mention that you have a few challenges during the interview process. Likewise, if you can get through that process then you are probably a highly compensated dyslexic – you had good coping strategies to deal with weaknesses and potentially benefit from an one or more of the upsides of dyslexia. The bottom line is that you don’t need to worry about it too much so why make a fuss?

I know quite a few people in this category. I also know quite a few who were in a comfortable position and then something about their role changed, through promotion or a change of responsibilities and all of a sudden they needed help to mitigate hitherto non-existent problems.

So what’s the answer?

The downsides of dyslexia are very visible and frequently misunderstood, whereas the upsides are often less easy to see for those with a more “linear” view of life. So disclosure is not a decision to be taken lightly.

In the end, I think disclosure is a personal and necessarily situational decision. It is far easier to disclose when you are perceived to be successful and already in a strong position within an organisation or personally financially secure. Disclosure is of course a hard decision for those who are struggling.

I think there are two basic groups of reason to disclose:

Disclose for yourself:

  • to gain access to assistive technology or training that will improve your performance
  • to help colleagues to understand how to work with you most effectively
  • to help others understand why you need to work a little differently but that it is still effective
  • to help your organisation make best use of your talents
  • to help others constructively handle perceived performance problems

Disclose for others:

  • to help to create a climate where disclosure is regarded as acceptable and not negative
  • to provide positive role models for more junior dyslexic staff
  • to help break down the incorrect stereotypes that are often associated with dyslexia
  • to help others know where to go to access informal advice and support

Of course, this is my view and I’m lucky in that I work in an organisation that aspires to an open and accepting culture, one that actively tries to avoid the exercise of unconscious bias, has a network for dyslexic employees and generally tries to do “the right thing”. Only you can decide how well disclosure would work in your organisation but I hope, for the general good of dyslexics, that we manage to raise the numbers from where they sit today.